Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you except for today. Today, I ask the question, “How did I get here?” I look back at the books that I have reviewed that have influenced my worldview, my actions, my affections, my life.
Not Best Books of 2022
This is not a best books of 2022 episode. I have not yet mastered the skill of ranking books. If forced to, I would choose Cur Deus Homo by Anselm of Canterbury because one can’t go wrong with a thousand year old classic. And if you restricted me to books published in 2022, then I’ve only five books to consider out of the 30 books I reviewed this year.
I’m not doing a best books of 2022 episode. I’m doing a reflection. I’m recognising that there are ‘flash in the pan’ books. Books that were so good when I first read them but had little lasting influence. On the other extreme, there are books that was just okay but unexpected led to long term changes.
I’m looking for such long term changes. That is why I’m not restricting myself to books reviewed in 2022. If Reading and Readers continues for ten, twenty years, you will hear through my year end reflections how I have grown through the books, how one book leads to another, and how books are not just the filling of the mind but can lead to habits and pleasures.
In today’s episode, I will talk about books that have encouraged a Christian habit, books that have formed a Christian worldview, and finally and most significantly, books that unexpectedly change my way of life. The keyword being unexpectedly.
Books That Encouraged A Christian Habit
Books that have encouraged a Christian habit. It’s a habit that begins with the letter ‘M’. We all know it’s good for you but somehow think it’s a habit for the super-holy-edifying-walk-on-water-people-sanctus. It’s not meditation, it’s memorisation.
In last year’s reflection, I shared how Chris Wright’s book, “Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit” was helpful especially how he describe John Stott and his habit of praying the fruit of the spirit every morning. Before the book, I had memorised Galatians 5:22-23 but I didn’t see how it could help me in maturing as a Christian.
I am not disciplined enough to pray it everyday but I have found it helpful to pray it when I need to. Sometimes it’s before breakfast, sometimes it’s before I sleep, often it’s before I am on the verge of saying something I shouldn’t say. Instead of biting my tongue, I recite in my heart, “Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control.” And wouldn’t you know it, self-control is what I needed the most.
Then in October this year, I read Andrew Naselli’s book, “Romans: A Concise Guide to the Greatest Letter Ever Written”. What impressed me the most was that he memorised Romans. I tried that before but gave up half way through. So challenged by Naselli’s success, I attempted once more to memorise the greatest letter ever written.
Nearly three months later, I have only managed to memorise Romans chapter 1. But that is because after memorising Romans chapter 1, I decided to memorise 2 Timothy because my need for it was more urgent. I was preaching on 2 Timothy and I knew if I had the letter in my head it would benefit my study and ultimately the church. And if you have never done this before, I invite you to try it.
If you are going to teach on a verse, or a passage, try memorising the whole chapter. The act of memorising will make you familiar with layout of the land. And every commentary you read will make more sense because you are never lost in the details.
And lest some think I am bragging, I am not. Chris Wright shared on John Stott’s daily prayer as an encouragement to all. Andrew Naselli only mentioned memorising Romans because he wanted to thank his youth group for the challenge. I am so far away from Stott’s maturity and Naselli’s achievement, that the reason why I share my meagre success is simply to encourage you, dear readers in the habit, and to thank these servants of the Lord for their encouragement.
Books That Formed A Worldview
Next, books that formed a worldview.
Have you asked or gotten this question before, “Can I read or watch or listen to this book or movie or song?”
The best answer I got is from Tony Reinke’s book, “Lit!”. “You can read anything you want as long as you hold to a Christian worldview.” Which if you think about it is the same as Henry Ford saying of his cars, “You can have any colour you want as long as it is black.”
Because you hold a Christian worldview, you will filter out books you should not read. Because you hold a Christian worldview, you will interpret or learn to interpret anything you read or watch or listen to from the Biblical lens.
Does that mean you can listen to edgy, aggressive rap like Eminem or bloody, violent war movies like Gladiator? Glad you ask. Because those are the examples included in Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, “How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends”. If you want more details on how to interpret Eminem, or Gladiator, or the many, many examples in this book, you can listen to Episode 50.
I read that book and applied the tools to do cultural hermeneutics, tools that take every cultural artifact, whether a building or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a text and bring out the World Behind the Text, the World In the Text and the World in front of the Text.
For example, I’m reading Tolkien Dogmatics by Austin Freeman and I am conscious when Freeman speaks of the World Behind the Text. Behind the text we have Tolkien’s belief in revelation, Tolkien claims the story came by revelation rather than by his creation. Freeman writes what Vanhoozer would label the World In The Text, the world of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, has revelation for example the prophecy of the Return of the King.
Do we need cultural hermeneutics to enjoy books? No. You don’t need to be steeped in knowledge of wine to enjoy wine. You don’t need to distinguish sweetness, acidity or alcohol to savour wine. But the knowledge, the categories help you process the flavours and in its own way increases the pleasure.
So rather than the boring question of “Can a Christian enjoy this or that?”, we ask the more interesting question of “What is here for the Christian to enjoy?”
When I put forward who I am as a Christian first, I realise there is more freedom to enjoy. And the beautiful thing is we can grow to have a Christian worldview.
Just to complete my reflection on forming a Christian worldview, I’ll add another book from Episode 35, “Redeeming Our Thinking About History” from Vern Poythress.
Now whenever I consider historical events, I try to tease out God’s purposes in those events. I speculate on God’s purposes, not to gain certainty, but to continue to be mindful of God’s hand.
It’s like going to a mystery theatre. I am not sure that my guesses are correct but that is not important because I am certain that all the pieces will come together to a dramatic conclusion.
And this is not just casual armchair musing. This has pastoral effect. The other day I was trying to comfort someone who was going through very difficult trials. Trial after trial. What comfort can one give? There is much to offer from Scripture but the one I offered then was the truth that God’s purposes will stand. No one could tell David Brainerd that his short life will lead to a missionary movement. No one could tell Adoniram Judson that his suffering will lead to a nation saved. But we can tell all believers that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and that while we live, we keep on guessing, keep on wondering, knowing that we will all be surprised at the end, when the credits roll, the curtain calls, and all applause goes to God, who is Director of all.
So whether it’s books or culture or history, I am thankful for the books that I have read have helped me form a Christian worldview.
Books That Unexpectedly Changed My Life
Lastly, let’s talk about a book that unexpectedly change my life. I stress on the word unexpectedly. You should prepare yourself for a surprise.
When you pick up a Christian book, you can expect it to change your Christian way of life. When you read a book titled, “The Possibility of Prayer”, you can expect to have a stronger prayer life.
Last year, when I picked up John Dickson’s “Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History”, I expected to be informed. I didn’t expect to spend the year laughing out loud in my commute to work or pondering deeply on the Maid of Holland, the Ashanti Empire or the White Rose of Germany. My life is all the richer because of John Dickson’s book but alas it’s not because of John Dickson.
Let me explain.
I enjoyed Bullies and Saints. And you can listen to my review on that book. There was a historian by the name of Tom Holland who was not a Christian, who did not ridicule Christianity but credited Christianity for civilisation.
Let me read from John Dickson’s book:
Holland has not had a “Damascus Road” experience. He is not a believing Christian. He has just come to realise that he — like many atheist and agnostic Westerners — is ethically Christian. In a controversial article announcing his shift in thinking, he explained:
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two millennia old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principle reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not a Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
It is fascinating when a non-believer declares himself, “in morals and ethics, a thoroughly and proudly Christian.”
Who Is This Guy?
So I looked him up. Tom Holland has a podcast with some guy who I also didn’t know Dominic Sandbrook. What is this podcast about, “The Rest is History”? I can’t remember what was the first episode I listened to. I thought it was good. So I subscribed, which meant I got notified of new episodes.
I listened to a few, a few became many, and many became, dare I say it, a daily experience. They don’t publish daily unless it’s for a special series but when I got into them, I had 200+ episodes to catch up with.
Through Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, I got introduced to many books, including Sandbrook’s “Adventures in Time” series, many podcasts like Empire, Battleground: Falklands and the World War 2 podcast, “We Have Ways to Make You Talk”. Yet there is something special about “The Rest is History”.
It’s not just their choice of topics. One day, I’m shedding tears because of a heroic pigeon, yes, pigeon the bird! Another day, I’m listening to the prostitute(?)-turned-Christian Empress Theodora of Byzantium who built the first hospitals for the poor. Another day I’m listening to a three part series on Australia Prime Ministers, a four part series on the American Civil War, a five part series on London.
The Most Awesome Road Trip
The topics are fascinating but it is the hosts that make the topics come alive. Tom and Dominic enjoy each others company. They exchange wits, they have their own in-jokes. They are experts in their sphere of history, both have written multiple bestselling books, and yet are transparently curious, so humble to learn from others. They are simultaneously podcaster and audience, because when one shares a fascinating fact, or plot twist, the other gasps.
It feels like being on a road trip with two smart and witty fellows. I listen to them on the commute and I sometimes just sit in my car in the parking lot just to finish the episode. And my colleagues must be wondering what am I doing laughing or listening so intently.
And who knew history could be so fun! In the news, history seems to be re-written as we speak. Angry people, pulling down statues, screaming at everyone. Before I have time to take a breath, rebut or even question, it’s already an established creed.
So it is incredibly refreshing to listen to Tom and Dominic, not because their politics matches mine. They make fun of both Biden and Trump. They make fun of both Boris and Corbyn. But their fun is good natured fun. Not cruel and not out to score points with a mob.
Maybe I’m biased because of the way they handle Christian history. Neither are Christians. Although Tom Holland is a lot more receptive to Christianity than Dominic Sandbrook. These are guys who are quite willing to admit that Christianity has done some good in the world, something that used to be a lot easier to just accept, yet they are equally able to point out the really bad apples, and that’s all I want from secular historians or any person, believer or non-believer.
Before their podcast, I didn’t know that the word slave came from the Slavs, a people who are the ancestors of today’s Central and Eastern Europeans. Maybe the Slavs should seek reparations. A dollar every time someone uses the word ‘slave’ in a movie, song or tweet.
So I listen and ask, “How can I bring a Christian worldview into this?”
There were slaves in Old Testament and New Testament times. For some, slavery is exclusively associated with the African American experience. Yet, history shows us that it’s complicated.
It does not diminish the evils of black slavery to recognise that there was white slavery, the Slavs. It does not diminish the evils of the African American experience to acknowledge that Brazil had more slaves than any other country. It does not diminish the evils of Western slave traders to say that it was Africans who invaded other Africans to capture slaves to sell to the West and also to the East. It does not diminish the evils of Christian slave owners to affirm that it was Christians like William Wilberforce and Christian theology like “All men are created in God’s image” that overcame slavery.
When it comes to evil, Christians understand evil better than the atheist, the secularist or any other religion. We understand evil because God defined it, God denounced it, God will judge it. But if we only knew what is evil, we would be a sad lot. It’s like knowing what is cancer but know not the cure. Christians are a blessed people because we know evil, and we know good. God has saved us from evil, from slavery to sin, and called us to a holy calling, by the grace God has given us in Christ Jesus.
Can we tease out God’s purpose in all this? Dare we talk about a plan to bring out good from evil? I don’t dare. At least not today. That’s not the purpose of today’s episode. In today’s podcast I want share my growth as a Christian to encourage you. Because of the books I have read, I have gotten to be more intentional in having a Christian worldview and in pondering on God’s purposes in all things.
Before I go to the conclusion, I just want to say that I’ve enjoyed The Rest is History so much that I want to announce I have just, only just, recently become a card-carrying member of the Rest is History Club. If I had Netflix, DisneyPlus and Amazon Prime in one corner and The Rest is History in the other, I would pick The Rest is History. I learn more, laugh more and come away more educated after every episode. And since I value them so highly, I thought it was only proper to put my money where my mouth is and give them cold hard cash.
So that’s my year end reflection. Next year, make a resolution to read more good books.
First, you can be encouraged into a habit one book at a time. If I manage to memorise Romans by next year, it’s only going to give me a rich annual dividend for the rest of my life.
Second, through books, you can form a Christian worldview. Instead of Superman’s X-ray vision, you have the far superior Christian true vision, the ability to see reality as it really is.
And third, through books, you never know what you are going to get. One book, whether bad, average or good, may lead you to a whole new world of pleasures, experiences and relationships.
I can’t wait to see what God will reveal in the new year ahead.
This is Reading and Reader’s year end reflection. And if you would like to support this podcast, please visit www.readingandreaders.com and buy me coffee. And thanks to every one who has bought me coffee, meaning you have sent over cold hard cash. Your support means so much and helps keeps me and this podcast going. Have a Happy New Year and see you in 2023! Bye bye.